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Reactions to the Vatican declaration on blessing same-sex couples show that culture matters

Views James T. Bretzke, S.J. / January 5, 2024 Print this:
Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, seen during his tenure as the archbishop of La Plata, Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Vatican News)

On December 18, the Dicastery (formerly Congregation) for the Doctrine of the Faith updated a 2021 Responsum (answer) to the question of offering blessings for same-sex unions. “Fiducia Supplicans,” a declaration, “outranks” the extrinsic authority of the C.D.F’s earlier Responsum.

The declaration’s rich theology on the pastoral meaning of blessings states explicitly that people in “irregular unions,” as well as individuals in same-sex relationships, can receive non-liturgical blessings. Of course, the holy water hit the proverbial fan immediately. I began to compile an annotated bibliography of journalistic, ecclesiastical and mainstream blog responses. In less than two weeks, my compilation surpassed 100 pages.

As is often the case, the greatest heat (perhaps corresponding with less light) came from the familiar quarters long-ago disillusioned by Pope Francis and his “field hospital” metaphor for the church that goes out and ministers to the most vulnerable, wounded and marginalized. Offering blessings for same-sex couples would seem to be a pastoral “natural,” but it was clearly one benediction too many for several people.

Offering blessings for same-sex couples would seem to be a pastoral “natural,” but it was clearly one benediction too many for several people.

Regis Martin, a professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio, called on Pope Francis to resign and get himself “off to the nearest monastery for a life of prayer and penance.” A prominent member of EWTN’s “Papal Posse,” the Rev. Gerald Murray, lamented “with dismay that the word sodomy is not found in [the declaration].” Equally dismayed was Bishop Joseph Strickland, recently removed by the Vatican as the bishop of Tyler, Tex., who issued a video statement calling on his brother bishops to say “no” to the declaration.

Of course, those who approved the declaration outnumber the dissenting voices, with many other bishops seeking to thread the needle, still connecting the 2021 Responsum forbidding blessings for same-sex unions with the new declaration strongly suggesting a different pastoral possibility.

These merit a deeper dive into the rhetoric and reasoning employed. But in this short reflection, I simply wish to lift up one group of responses that might be mislabeled as opposed to Pope Francis, but which remain strongly in the communio episcoporum with him.

Prudential judgments

Here I refer to the responses from a number of African bishops and bishops’ conferences [1]. In fact, one bishop noted with considerable reservation: “It is very sad for me, that for the first time in the history of the Church, a document released [by] the Holy See, signed by the Holy Father, is rejected by his fellow bishops.”

While at first glance, it may seem these sub-Saharan bishops have cast their lots with Bishop Strickland and others, I believe they have simply come to different prudential judgements as to what is possible in their own particular religious and cultural contexts. In Burundi, for example, the cultural context includes a president who recently called not just for the imprisonment for LGBTQ people, but for their execution by stoning.

Pastoral sensitivity to sharply differing concrete theological contexts is, in fact, a hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy.

Pastoral sensitivity to sharply differing concrete theological contexts is, in fact, a hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy—a hallmark that had often been derided by people rejecting the trajectory of “Fiducia Supplicans.” Many African bishops sought to underscore that, in their dioceses, embarking upon giving explicit blessings to those in irregular situations very likely would not be understood by a good number of the faithful.

It could cause the kind of scandal that St. Paul warned against when he asked Christians not to trouble the consciences of the newer members by eating meat that had been ritually sacrificed to idols (cf. 1 Corinthians 8). In fact, Cardinal Víctor Fernández, the prefect of the D.D.F., approved of this stance specifically, noting that it was not in tension with the declaration.

While St. Paul did not employ the term, I believe that what we are witnessing here is a crucial and key theological aspect of inculturation. While the Gospel always remains the same in its essentials, how it is presented in its particulars will necessarily differ from culture to culture.

This point was stressed by Pope St. Paul VI in his 1975 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (20), and also finds specific resonance in the Second Vatican Council’s document “Ad Gentes” (its decree on the church’s missionary work) and “Nostra Aetate” (its declaration on relationships between the Catholic Church and non-Christian religions). This point is also seen implicitly in the theology of both Council’s dogmatic and pastoral constitutions on the church.

While the Gospel always remains the same in its essentials, how it is presented in its particulars will necessarily differ from culture to culture.

Based on this core theology of inculturation, it should be neither surprising nor troubling to find practical conclusions of such a different nature from some American and African bishops. These differences do not, in fact, indicate the malaise of cultural relativism so often denounced by those quick to condemn the Vatican declaration, but rather point to a more earnest and honest search for what the Holy Spirit, as the Paraclete, would remind and reveal as new teaching, promised by Jesus in his Farewell Discourse. (cf. Jn. 14: 15-29; 16: 7-15).

Pentecost itself gives further support to this understanding of inculturation in that all of the initial recipients of the post-Resurrection evangelization “heard” the preaching of the Gospel kerygma in their native tongue (cf. Acts 2:5-12). Seen in these New Testament perspectives, it may be that those who hold themselves most rigidly “orthodox” more closely identify not with the Spirit-filled disciples, but with the religious faction among the Jewish authorities that found Jesus heretical and unsupportable.

In any event, continued discernment and reflection on these responses, as well as reactions to the declaration, likely will aid in interpreting the document itself and, more broadly, the theology of inculturation, as it moves from abstract theory to concrete practice in these critical areas of human life.

[1] My regularly updated bibliography can be found here. I organized entries chronologically and according to source and genre. There are separate sections devoted to reactions and statements from various church officials (mostly bishops and bishops’ conferences) and well-known clerics. Lay reactions from both the religious and secular spheres are also included.

James T. Bretzke, S.J.

Father Bretzke is a professor of theology at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. The author of the “Handbook of Roman Catholic Moral Terms,” he received his doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 1989.

All articles by James T. Bretzke, S.J.

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  1. Spoken like a true Jesuit.

  2. On the African situation, political and religious leaders often feed off each other on their homophobia. Often political leaders (at least the situation in Kenya) are outspoken on their homophobia to impress religious leaders (virtue signaling of sorts). In an ongoing decriminalization case in court, a leading catholic bishop attends the case fully robed – the church in a leading interested party in the case….

  3. As a trans person living in the US, I notice one similarity between the two cultures mentioned in this video: they have both arisen within the context of European colonial violence.

    I think one thing missing from this analysis is historical context for where hatred of LGBTQ folks comes from in countries subject to European colonization. These violent attitudes are rooted in the colonial violence thar was supported by church organs for centuries. If we wish to repair that harm, I don’t think the institutional church can afford to continue to act in alignment with the cultures of domination she has helped to establish.